Meet Alex Moulton, engineer of the much-loved Moulton bicycle — Norman Foster and Reyner Banham’s favourite set of wheels
I’m at The Hall in Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, the enchanting 17th-century home of the Moulton, arguably the most unique and technically advanced bicycle in the world.
I’ve come to meet Alex Moulton, the octogenarian mechanical engineer who invented the small-wheel, full-suspension Moulton bicycle in 1962 as a challenge to the conventional diamond frame. Since then, he’s spent a lifetime refining his revolutionary design, which, in 1986, broke the world speed record for the fastest bicycle of conventional riding position.
This weekend, Moulton aficionados will convene on the triple-gabled villa for their annual summer ride and picnic, a pilgrimage to the place where the Moulton was first manufactured, and where frames are still lovingly handcrafted in its converted stables.
‘It has simply been my continuing ambition to make a superior bicycle to the classical bicycle,’ says Moulton over a glass of wine in a room piled high with books, sketches of bike parts and scribbled calculations.
Moulton was born into engineering and invention. His great-grandfather, Stephen Moulton, acquired the rights to the process for the vulcanisation of rubber from American Charles Goodyear, and made his fortune developing new uses for this new material, such as rain capes for British soldiers fighting the Crimean War. Stephen bought The Hall in 1848, converting the adjacent cloth mill to rubber production, later sold to the Avon Rubber Company in 1956.
His great-grandson would also turn to rubber for his innovative designs.
After studying aeroengines at the University of Cambridge, Alex founded Moulton Developments Limited, focusing on the design and development of rubber suspension for vehicles such as cars and trailers research which culminated in the development of his acclaimed suspension systems for the Mini, as well as the Austin Allegro, Princess, Metro and Ambassador.
‘Actually, if you do it properly, a small-wheel bicycle is the best bicycle in the world.’
In the aftermath of the Suez crisis in 1956, the ensuing oil shortages encouraged Moulton to examine the bicycle. ‘For all the brilliant work that was done in the last century, the classic bicycle came to be around 1900,’ says Moulton. ‘It worked so wonderfully, nobody saw any reason to change it but it does have certain dysfunctions.’ These ‘dysfunctions’, according to Moulton, are the crossbar that bridges the top of the frame (‘you’re trapped by it. You can’t get away from it’) and ‘those enormous, stupid wheels’. Moulton noticed that as vehicles evolved, their wheels continually became smaller, with the exception of the classic bicycle, which had stalled at 26 or 28in. His calculations showed that a smaller wheel would go faster with less effort due to lower rolling resistance, lower aerodynamic drag and faster acceleration. ‘One always rears up to the reality of the physics, if you like,’ says Moulton.
With support from Dunlop, Moulton began testing small wheels using tyres designed for children’s bikes, but found them ‘very bad’.
‘It became clear that we needed a high-pressure tyre,’ he explains. ‘And with a high-pressure tyre, suspension was mandatory to compensate for the harder ride.’ Moulton also altered the relative sizes of the chain wheel and sprocket to compensate for the smaller wheels, ensuring that his bicycle had the same speed and gearing as the diamond frame.
The design of the original Moulton featured a unisex, Lazy-F step-through frame, 16in high-pressure tyres, front and rear rubber suspension, and increased luggage capacity with front and rear racks. After a sensational launch in 1962 at the Earls Court Cycle and Motor Cycle Show, Moulton went on to become the second-largest frame maker in the UK, at its peak manufacturing more than 1,000 bikes a week.
According to Tony Hadland’s book The Moulton Bicycle, by 1966 the Moulton was being exported to 30 countries and being built under license in the USA, Australia, South Africa and Norway. Sales were boosted by racing results, such as John Woodburn’s record-breaking Cardiff-London ride on a Moulton Speed in 1962.
Paradoxically, the Moulton’s breakaway popularity eventually led to a decline in sales as Raleigh launched a series of copycats, such as the Twenty shopping bicycle, while increased mass production of the Moulton led to a decline in quality, particularly at the factory in Kirkby, Liverpool, where inexperienced welders overheated the frames. Raleigh eventually took over the name Moulton, but failed to adhere to the design’s delicate specifications, and sold versions without the front suspension, causing the frames to crack.
Moulton became an independent company once again in 1983, and operated under the name Alex Moulton Bicycles until June this year, when it announced a merger with Stratford-upon-Avon-based Pashley to form The Moulton Bicycle Company. The new bicycles, aside from their full suspension and (slightly larger) 17in high-pressure tyres, bear little resemblance to early Moultons. In the 1980s, Moulton began experimenting with space frames to build a stiffer, lighter bicycle. His newest pylon models feature a steel cage formed by triangulated smaller units for a structurally-rigid, lightweight construction.
With its engineering-led precision design and constantly improving form, Moulton has long inspired a fervent following. Architectural critic Rayner Banham famously rode a 1960s Moulton, and was often pictured astride it.
‘The elements must be obviously efficient, but never styled.’
Moulton’s New Series, which starts at £2,200, has inspired equally devout disciples, including James Dyson and Norman Foster, both owners of the New Series Speed. Foster even flew his helicopter to Bradford-on-Avon to meet Moulton, landing the chopper on The Hall’s front lawn. ‘He loved this place,’ says Moulton. ‘He was absolutely bewitched.’ Foster’s enthusiasm is not surprising: Moulton admits that his newest designs have a lot in common with High-Tech architecture, as they allow pure functionality to lead the form. ‘With the first model, I was extremely concerned with appearance because I was doing a really brutal thing; I was imposing on the public an enormous change from the classical bicycle,’ he explains. ‘So, in order not to offend the public, I made the front and back forks nicely curved, and kept the suspension entirely hidden. But very soon, reality punished me – the rear forks bent.
‘After that, I said to myself, let¹s do it engineering-wise. Since then, I’ve been concerned with creating something balanced and elegant, but never to lead the fashion. The elements must be obviously efficient, but never styled.
‘Architecture has one or two less dimensions than engineering,’ adds Moulton. ‘I mean, things don’t have to fly or go moving about. The things that I¹m working on, mechanical things, they’ve got function. Architecture is more open to styling, to shape.’
It is Moulton’s quest for the most efficient, most technically brilliant ride that has kept Moulton bicycles from folding. According to Moulton, the Brompton folds exceptionally well because it is designed for folding, whereas his bicycle is designed for exceptional performance on the road. Rather than fold, several of Moulton’s models separate into two an option he claims will not compromise the frame in any way.
‘Scores of manufacturers that make a small-wheel bicycle imagine that they’re simply folding bicycles,’ adds Moulton. ‘It hasn¹t dawned on them that actually, if you do it properly, a small-wheel bicycle is the best bicycle in the world.’
Moulton Bicycle Club weekend, 5-7 September 2008, Holt Road, Bradford-on-Avon, Wiltshire, BA15 1AH. Admittance to members of Moulton Bicycle Club only, but new members are welcome to join on the door.www.moultoneers.info
From the archive: Christine Murray interviews Alex Moulton, inventor of the Moulton bicycle